Reviewing Restaurants - Professional vs. Amateur

Sunday, June 1, 2008

I've always mulled over restaurant reviews. These simple pieces of literature which dictates with a supposed authority the Good and the Bad of all that is served food. Here, an author invisible to not only his or her readers but their subjects of critique is given a modicum, or in some cases great amounts, of influence over the establishments in question and it's unassuming potential clientèle.

Still the (self)appointed judges have to play by certain rules which are blurry at best. They must be unbiased, even in cases of extreme distaste, and when in a place of distaste decipher a dish or glass by it's own variable, yet sketchy, standards and not their own. Assuming they can accomplish this task we then have to assess what qualifies them as a reliable source. Where were they educated? How were they educated? What background in food and, importantly as well, in writing does the critic have?

Furthermore there is the question of the Professional and the Amateur. I am lucky (or unlucky) to straddle the fence on this question. I review professionally for Edible Sacramento. I review as an amateur for my blog. Of course then there is judgment on if one position carries into the other, but then a whole new discussion is on the table. Regardless, our focus is on the defined positions. Edible Sacramento pays me a stipend. A straight fee. I pay for my meals and write about them, if I spend over my stipend, it comes from my pocket. If not, I have a small profit.
However, the Professional we are discussing are the all powerful ones, those with great sway over the masses and who have incredible financial backing. The Los Angeles or New York Times critics are prime examples - these are people who are paid to write their critiques up for mass distribution. What characterizes and shapes their reviews most is the financial backing, the company pays for their meals. That's meals plural. Repeat visits also allow them to brings guests in order for the critic to taste the entire menu.

In a scientific and practical way, this makes perfect sense for a restaurant review. The Professional, able to test the entire offerings of the kitchen, has the ability to get a feel for consistency, sophistication, skill, and diversity of each dish. They can evaluate nearly the entire menu. They can get a feel for the floor. They can better evaluate the service: Is it always fast? Is it efficient? Do they take care of their tables? Is the sommelier knowledgeable about the food and what wines to pair it with? What is the overall atmosphere?

Many Professionals argue they their review signifies parity with the everyday diner, however the only way to achieve true parity is to pay for the meal with their own money. By having a company cover expenses for them and their dining companions for multiple trips, they lose touch with that economic influence that gives a critique substance. While core questions for a diner are if a meal is well prepared or if the cuisine is one that will be enjoyed, another one of possibly greatest importance is is the meal worth it?

The Amateur reviewer can achieve parity with the reader on this crucial level. They attend a restaurant only once, maybe twice, or however many times they can reasonably afford based on their own financial situation. They carefully analyze the meal in relation to it's dollar amount. This key aspect is taken into great care for the diligent amateur reviewer.

For the most part, the average diner only goes out for special occasions and usually chooses a favorite restaurant, warily deviating from selections that may disappoint. Thus the reviews for the average diner are important. As a guide it has to be accurate and describe the everyday experience.

The Amateur describes this everyday experience. They go in for a regular meal and they can describe their experience. The drawback of course, is the one time experience. The kitchen may have had an off night, the head chef out sick, the oven was sketchy. Still, no one wants to go out for a special occasion and have a terrible experience.

The negative to the Amateur is that there is no reliability or editor governing their writing or verifying their qualifications. They must be accepted as-is. Furthermore, the Amateur may lack the knowledge or connections the Professional may possess from being in the industry needed to write up a detailed and complete review.

Of course, the Professional probably has a good background or education in writing and food, otherwise they would not have been hired in the first place. The Professional also is sure to meticulously take into account the atmosphere, wine, background of the restaurant, history of the head chef, locality of the ingredients, and knowledge of the cuisines and preparations. Still, if the Amateur is able to match the Professional on every one of these markers, then what give the Professional more standing aside from a public title? If placed on equal footing, then trust should be placed into the amateur for their economic dining parity to the everydiner.

It's an odd and fine line. There are good arguments for the reviews of the Professional and the amateur. The Professional offers a diverse, complete review that is outside parity with the reader. The Amateur has a sense of equivalence and relatibility with the reader. So, which one should be trusted?

In the end, I find that the best way to study for a restaurant (am I the only one that does it?) is to read up as much as you can about the chefs and the owners and read over any press. I try to study ahead for my reviews, I do my research, and I bring other mouths other than my own. I may not have been formally trained as a chef, but I study, research, and learn a lot on my own. I go out of my way to make sure that I am fully informed.

Still, in the end, one has to put faith and trust in the reviewer. Furthermore, their wholly unbiased sense of taste can be questionable. Myself, I hate raw tomatoes, still, if presented one in a dish, I'll eat it and attempt to describe it for those who do and attempt to keep my own prejudice on it excluded.

The reader, therefore is his or her own reviewer. The reader does so whenever they become a diner, they analyze and critique their experience, and put it out in a public forum through discussions with friends, family, or coworkers and so on. We trust these people for the most part and in turn give our trust, for the most part, to the Amateur.

The reader/diner is supposedly, in the end the only real reviewer that they can assuredly trust in all matters of taste. But then again, that would lead us to another post on why review restaurants at all...

Have your own ideas and opinions on the topic? Would love to hear them in the comments section (no judgment).
;)

7 comments:

  1. I think professional reviews in the Sacramento area are very suspect. There seems to be a great reluctance to damage any establishment or performance in Sacramento's main stream press. Everyone seems to get some variation of 3 stars. In the local periodical press, it seems to be ad driven. Places that advertise get reviews and those are 99% positive.

    I'd rather read 5 - 6 amateur reviews and then form my own opinion.

    Sacramento is very very provincial on the review front.

    I haven't read your reviews in Editable Sacramento, so I'll exclude you from the above comments - I do like your blog reviews, which you are calling amateur.

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  2. The Big Black PuddingJune 2, 2008 at 12:56 AM

    Hi, this is an interesting area - I think both the amateur and the professional points of view are perfectly valid, it's just that they look at things through a slightly different lens. In my view, if someone is keen enough to read the reviews then they're savvy enough to figure out, on balance, whether they are likely to enjoy dining at a particularl restaurant or not.

    If your readers in the Sacramento area are likely to come to London at any time then they might like to stop by my blog at www.thebigblackpudding.blogspot.com where they might get some interesting dining ideas.

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  3. I think in Sacramento most of the restaraunts know the main reviewer and so go out of the way to make sure the dishes are spot on. I have to say that my taste and that of our primary reviewer are at total opposite ends. What he gives 3 or 4 stars to I would give a 2. And yes one has to wonder if advertisement and "perks" have anything to do with a good or bad review. I think amateur reviews are a better way to go since they have nothing to loose or gain from a good or bad review.

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  4. E & S: I have to disagree actually, here in Sac, Mike Dunne and Kate Washington both take very strict precautions to ensure people do not know what they look like. Still, there must be a few pictures floating out there, but I think they do their best to make sure they are unknown.

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  5. Dennis & MaryJune 4, 2008 at 10:56 AM

    Well written article, Garrett. I think about this a lot too. We've had several reviews written about Hidden Kitchen and with the recent Zagat Sacramento survey, we got to write one or two line reviews about a bunch of restaurants that we frequent. The other aspect that interests me is about once a month when we host Hidden Kitchen, always one of the topics that comes up is "where do you like to eat?" and it goes around the room for comment.
    So I think in the end we are all reviewers, regardless of our "day job" title.
    I'll say this about those who publish their reviews, paid and unpaid. I like to read several of the reviewers pieces to get a feel for how and what they look for in a restaurant. I have great respect for Mike Dunne but I'm not a fan of his restaurant review style. On the other hand I find his Appetizers blog to be one of my favorites and I read it regularly to keep up with local goings on.
    In the end, if you find someone who you read and find sympatico, then you'll put your trust in whatever they do. The power of the written word is a tremendous responsibility and it can drive business in either direction. Please keep that in mind when you put your thoughts to word.

    All the best - Dennis

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  6. Garrett, I think it's a pretty difficult line to tread.

    Attempting to be honest, fair and balanced in something that, ultimately, boils down to an individual’s taste buds and proclivity. No matter how right on the mark you are, to someone out there, you are wrong-wrong-WRONG!

    Of course, those are the folk who will be the most vocal in disparaging your reviews.

    Professional or amateur, I’ve always tried to find out how closely my tastes coincide with the reviewer, then take their advice with that in mind.

    Also, stars…. ugh! Absolutely meaningless if you’ve read the review, and formed your own opinion.

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  7. I have to say that I agree with Denis. I'll read reviews if I happen on them but more than that, I find resturants based on word of mouth. That, or I'll just drive till I see something interesting. It can be a disappointment but I've found great food all over the country by being a bit advanturous.

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~Garrett

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